Wednesday 4 September 2019

Travel in Spain: Tapas to Salamanca

Modern Spanish tapas can be as simple as tiny, sweet tomatoes on good bread and a dash of cheese.
Cover picture by Elli Ioannou for DAM of the Stephane Rolland AW20 haute couture show.
When Australian writer Geoffrey Maslen lived in the historic city of Salamanca, he discovered the delights of the local tapas bar. Full of life, these small emporiums offering delicious morsels and regional red wines are at the heart of every Spanish village and town

Pinchos with tuna, pepper
and onion
IF ENGLAND is a nation of shopkeepers, Spain is a country of tapas bar owners. Few countries on Earth have so many small liquor and food outlets, most of which operate not only as places that sell drinks and tapas but also as clubs, family meeting places and communal loungerooms to watch the soccer on TV, for their locals.

Every village, town and city, every bus and train station, every airport, has a tapas bar or two. Or 20 or 20,000. Outside our apartment in Salamanca, a delightful city 200 kilometres west of Madrid, I once counted more than a dozen bars within two minutes' walk - and 40 along a single street.

A short stroll from our block of apartments to the next revealed six of these kitchen-sized retreats, and most never seemed to close. They did, of course, but usually only for a few hours of darkness in what Spaniards call the madrugada. All were inevitably open by 8am and were still trading at midnight.

Salamanca is part of the Castile and León region in north-western Spain. With a history dating back to the Celtic era, it is renowned for its ornate sandstone architecture and for the Universidad de Salamanca. Founded in the 1100s and a key intellectual centre in the 15th-16th centuries, the university adds to the city’s vibrancy with its international student population.
The historic city of Salamanca
 never seems to sleep
Like other visitors to Spain, we wondered just when or if the Spaniards ever sleep. One attraction of these local dispensers of good cheer, apart from their propinquity, was the array of snacks displayed along or behind glass on the counter.

With every glass of beer or wine almost certainly comes a tapa. It may be as simple as a saucer of olives or potato chips, or as complicated as a small bowl of rabbit stew laden with numerous vegetables and served with a piece of bread.

Experts differ about the origin of the tapa. King Alfonso X, known to his subjects in the 13th century as Alfonso the Wise, is said to have been worried by rising drunkenness among his people. So he ordered his inn-keepers to provide a slice of ham or something similar with every glass of wine, which would "tapar", or keep a lid on, the effects of the alcohol.

Another theory takes the translation of tapa as "lid" and argues the snacks originated in the sherry area of Andalucia where the bar owners placed a piece of bread on top of the drinks they served to keep off the flies. This evolved into the custom of putting a titbit such as a few olives, a slice of ham or sausage on a lid to cover the drink - ensuring the food was also salty to maintain the customer's thirst. Whatever the truth, the fact is that tapas, or pinchos as they are called in some regions, have long been an integral part of Spanish life.

Even if you order a coffee or tea "con limon" in a bar, you may be offered a tapa, although it could only amount to a wee bowl of junket or a small cake. One of our favourite bars in Salamanca is in the city's Gran Via. An art deco delight that looks like an Australian milk bar from the 1950s, it always has on display a dozen or more different tapas. They range from anchovy canapes, through bread rolls filled with ham, to slices of tortilla.

A local bar with its counters loaded
with a changing array
of delicious tapas
Unlike many of the small bars in the suburbs where the food remains the same throughout the day, here the tapas are changed early in the afternoon and a different array appears. "The people are hungrier before lunch than before dinner so we have larger servings in the earlier part of the day," says Alfredo, our ever-friendly, ever-busy barman.

This young camarero's day begins about 1pm when he arrives for work and might last to 3am or later the following morning six days a week for 50 weeks a year.

I ask him to name the tapas and he rattles off "canape de anchoa (anchovies on toast), heuvos con bechemel (egg in a white sauce, coated in bread crumbs and fried), patatas bravas (diced roast potatoes which, like the eggs, are heated in a microwave before being served with a mayonnaise sauce), gambas (prawns) in garlic, bocadillos (small bread rolls with different fillings such as ham, bacon and cheese, or tomato), tortillas..." The list goes on.

Every region, every city, every town and village, and almost every bar, has its own type of tapas. Ask a barman what tapas he has and you will get a blast of terminology that only confuses the novice. The best thing is to look at the range and nominate the one that looks most interesting or appetising. In the bars we have been to, the tapas come with the drinks and whether you opt for one or not the price remains the same. But many bars now demand payment for their tapas and the newcomer needs to ask if there is a charge and what it will cost.

Fresh tapas on crusty bread with
jamón, olives, tomatoes & onion
The price will probably range from $1 to $2. Many bars also serve raciones - meal-sized servings that are usually of the same sort of food the tapas are made from, and these can cost up to $10 or more.

A media racion is half the full meal but again the visitor needs to make clear that it is a tapa, not a plate of food that is wanted. Standing at a bar, sipping a canya - a draught beer - or a glass of wine from a barrel behind the counter and snacking on a delicious tapa is one of the great pleasures of life. It is not surprising so many Spaniards have made it their favourite pastime.

Geoffrey Maslen's latest book is An Uncertain Future: Australian Birdlife in Danger published by Hardie Grant

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